A former Whitehall mandarin sparked calls for civil service reform yesterday after appearing to admit breaking impartiality rules over Brexit.
In an extraordinary revelation, former Foreign Office chief Simon McDonald said he told staff he voted Remain after the 2016 referendum to show solidarity with his shocked officials.
Lord McDonald said the move was necessary to “maintain credibility” in a ministry “in mourning” after Britain voted to leave the EU.
But his decision clearly breached the civil service code and raised fears that senior officials were trying to thwart Brexit.
Former cabinet minister Liam Fox described Sir Simon’s comments as “totally inappropriate”.
Simon McDonald speaks during a joint press conference with Ambassador Undersecretary of the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2017
Dr. Fox, who served as international trade secretary during the Brexit negotiations, said: “This is another example of the loss of impartiality in the public service that we have every right to expect.”
“This attitude was a big issue during the negotiations. We have had politicians in Parliament trying to thwart Brexit, including Speaker John Bercow. And senior figures such as Lord McDonald clearly gave a nod to the civil service, showing it that it was OK to pump the brakes.
“It just highlights the need for civil service reform.” “We need to move to a system where the Secretary of State can sack the permanent secretary because we need to know that the top brass of the civil service is committed to delivering what the “The public voted.”
Tory peer Peter Bone said: “These comments show there was a fundamental problem with people at the heart of the government refusing to accept the judgment of the British people.”
“You could see the results back then – it explains why we had these absurd delays and obstacles in leaving the EU.”
Lord McDonald admitted the Foreign Office board was “not entirely happy” with its decision to reveal to staff and ministers how it voted.
Speaking about his comments, former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara told the BBC: “Wow, that’s really surprising… I don’t know why that would be good or helpful.”
The former head of the Foreign Office gives evidence via video link to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in 2020
Another Mandarin described Sir Simon as a “pompous ass”.
Lord McDonald’s speaks out in a documentary by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg about the chaos that engulfed Westminster following the Brexit vote.
He said the Foreign Office was “in mourning” after the Brexit vote.
“People were in tears. “People were in shock,” he said. “On this unique opportunity, I decided to tell my colleagues, and therefore ministers, that I voted to remain in the EU.” He added: “I tried to maintain credibility and a group of people, one of whom “I felt that most people who voted to remain in the EU sent the message that their personal feelings were secondary to the professional issue.”
The code for public officials requires them to act impartially and never allow “personal political views to determine your advice or actions.”
They are prohibited from expressing personal views “on matters of national political controversy.” But Tory MP Alicia Kearns, who previously worked as a Foreign Office official, said anti-Brexit views were widespread in the department at the time. Ms Kearns said a senior official said in a meeting with officials: “We know the British public have made a mistake.”
A former Foreign Office official also claimed Lord McDonald was “deliberately obstructive” as ministers tried to negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU.
Career diplomat who posted: “It was a good day” when Boris resigned
Lord McDonald’s frank confessions will have shocked few in Downing Street.
For years the former Foreign and Commonwealth Office official was suspected of privately waging a guerrilla war in the corridors of Whitehall against No10’s Brexit policies.
The career diplomat was reportedly on the “No. 10 scrap list” during Boris Johnson’s time in office because he was reportedly opposed to leaving the EU. Mr Johnson and his ministers were convinced he was part of the civil service “blob” trying to thwart the will of the public.
There was certainly no romantic relationship between the top Foreign Office official and Mr Johnson, who was foreign secretary before becoming prime minister.
After a 40-year career in public service, Lord McDonald became famous overnight for a spectacular act: he helped bring down Mr Johnson.
He intervened explosively in the Chris Pincher controversy in July last year, which sparked a crisis when he publicly accused No10 of lying.
After Deputy Chief Whip Mr Pincher was accused of sexual harassment, No10 claimed the Prime Minister was unaware of a previous complaint in 2019 about Mr Pincher before his appointment.
“For years the former Foreign Office mandarin was suspected of privately waging a guerrilla war against No10’s Brexit policies.”
After Mr Johnson reportedly nicknamed him “Pincher by name, Pincher by nature”, Lord McDonald wrote a bombshell open letter contradicting Downing Street’s claims.
It gave critics ammunition as Mr Johnson tried to deal with the new allegations against Mr Pincher.
When Mr Johnson resigned a few weeks later, the former mandarin was accused of gloating after posting a photo of Parliament at sunset online with the caption “It was a good day”.
Before stepping down, Lord McDonald was Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs from 2010 to 2015 – Britain’s most senior diplomat.
He held the post when Mr Johnson was foreign secretary and, according to insiders, the two clashed repeatedly. Mr Johnson believed the “Remainiac” Mandarin was trying to “undermine him by leaking stories about his laziness”.
Lord McDonald, 62, left his role in 2020 and was made a peer serving as a crossbencher as Lord McDonald of Salford, after the city where he was born in 1961, where he attended grammar school before going to university Cambridge went.
Last year he took up the post of master’s degree at Christ’s College, Cambridge. He is married to Olivia, whose father, Baron Wright of Richmond, was head of the Foreign Office from 1986 to 1991. The couple has two sons and two daughters.
In 2018 he dismissed reports that the Foreign Office was demoralized by Brexit, comments that are being examined in light of his recent comments.